At times last year, Jessica Duke looked around the Utah gymnastics team's practice facility and saw Ashley Postell, Annabeth Eberle and the team's other big names working out. She would have to remind herself she wasn't in the gym to get the stars' autographs like she used to do when she was younger, but that she was their teammate.
"I never thought I could be up to their level or do as well as they could," Duke said. "I stressed and worried a lot wondering if I fit in."
Duke, who grew up in Sandy, no longer has those worries. The sophomore has proved she not only belongs, but also is a consistent contributor on one of the country's top teams.
Duke was in the all-around lineup in the first meet and has competed on the vault and bars in every competition and in the floor lineup in all but one. She regularly earns scores in the 9.8 range.
As her spots in the lineup have increased, so has Duke's confidence, and that has only made her gymnastics even better. No longer is she wasting energy wondering if she belongs or if the team's headliners think less of her.
"There has been a drastic change in Jess," junior Nicolle Ford said. "Last year she seemed intimidated by everyone and comparing herself to them. I don't know what else was going through her head, but you could tell she was asking herself 'Am I good enough?' "
Duke's lack of confidence wasn't anything new, most rookies in sports come in with a good helping of self-doubt. If they don't they're probably overconfident.
But Duke had the added pressure of being a homegrown girl for a team that regularly searches far and wide for its talent. She didn't want to be thought of as just a charity case, someone given a scholarship only because she is the best in the state.
"I had my family and old teammates at the meets and I wanted to show them what I could do instead of just saying I was on the team," she said.
What she didn't understand is that with only 12 scholarships, Utah coach Greg Marsden isn't going to hand one out as merely a good P.R. move.
"I was a lot more confident in her gymnastics than she was," Marsden said. "All freshmen come in and struggle at some point, and she was an emotional wreck at times through the season. As the season wore on, she started pressing and got some little injuries that held her back."
Duke earned her way into the lineup 19 times, and never missed a routine and earned a high of 9.925 on the vault and a 9.825 on the bars, showing the skills which Marsden was convinced were there.
"Jessica just has to relax and believe in herself," Marsden said. "She is like a batter who is in a slump. Sometimes she thinks about things too much rather than just relaxing and hitting."
Duke is doing a better job of that this year, often in the middle of the lineup. Her confidence got a lift at the start of the season thanks to a good offseason fitness program that left her better prepared for the year.
The one area she would like to improve in is the beam. She fell in the first meet and hasn't cracked the lineup since.
"I still think about things too much on the beam," she said. "Vault you can just go hard, you don't have time to think. Beam is slower, and I need to learn how to just do it and not doubt myself."
Duke is no longer in awe of her teammates, and sees herself more and more as a leader.
"There will always be stars on the team, but you need someone there on the side too who can be a leader and be there as support," she said. "I know I'll never be a star, but I see myself as a strong competitor."
Ford has her doubts, in a good way.
"I'd never say she couldn't be a star," she said. "She's only a sophomore and she's made such an improvement from last year when she was more of a vault and bars specialist. She's a pusher too. You look at her and see she is improving, and it makes you want to improve. She is so much more determined, so I'd never rule her out."
TONIGHT, 7 p.m.
What to look for: Minnesota coaches Jim and Meg Stephenson are former Utah assistants. . . . Laura Johnson (39.2) is the team's top all-arounder. . . . No. 20 Minnesota has not won in its nine trips to Salt Lake City.
Elsewhere: Utah State is at Boise State tonight at 7 p.m., and SUU plays host to West Virginia at 7 p.m. Saturday.